Burkina Faso and Mali are both under the control of military juntas – Burkina Faso since January 2022 and Mali since August 2020. Both juntas are under pressure to transition back to civilian rule, especially Mali’s. Since January, Mali has been under sweeping sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is attempting to compel a rapid transition after the Malian junta missed the initially agreed-upon eighteen-month window. Burkina Faso’s relations with ECOWAS are better, for the moment, because the Burkinabè junta is newer; but the junta there recently missed ECOWAS’ April 25 deadline for setting a rapid transition timetable (ECOWAS does not accept the Burkinabè junta’s 36-month plan).
From the moment of the coup in another West African country, Guinea, in September 2021 and especially since the coup in Burkina Faso in January, there has been a certain solidarity between West Africa’s three overt juntas (that solidarity does not extend in the same way to Chad, I would say, where the dynamics are quite different – although still a junta! Nor does it fully or necessarily extend to Mauritania which is arguably still under quasi-military rule). When sanctions hit Mali in January, Guinea’s military leader Colonel Mamadi Doumbouya made a point to declare that those two countries’ land border would remain open, calling Mali a “brother country” and evoking “the pan-Africanist vision.” Moreover, as journalists’ profiles of these figures often emphasize, there are generational similarities (born in the 1980s) and professional similarities (colonels, often from elite units) among the new West African coup-makers.
In this context it is interesting to see a delegation that Burkina Faso’s military ruler, President Paul-Henri Damiba, sent to Bamako to meet the Malian junta on April 22. The delegation included three top officers who are in Damiba’s “inner circle”: Serge Thierry Kiendrebeogo, Damiba’s chief of staff; Yves-Didier Bamoun, national theater operations commander, and Daba Naon, head of national firefighters’ brigade. The delegation met senior members of the Malian junta, including Malian President Assimi Goita, Defense Minister Sadio Camara, and National Transition Council* President Malick Diaw, all three of them key members of the junta. Separately, the Burkinabè delegation met Chief of Army Staff Oumar Diarra and Director of Military Security Moussa Toumani Koné.
The delegation’s main purpose, according to the official readout, was to “reaffirm their will [i.e., the will of the Burkinabè authorities] to continue military and security cooperation with Mali and to reinforce it especially through the intensification of operations on the ground.” Notably, the Burkinabè presidency mirrored recent rhetoric from the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) about FAMa’s “increase in power” (montée en puissance – see an example of that phrase’s usage by FAMa here). The official readout says, in part, “The ambition is to anticipate security problems that could cause a retreat of armed terrorist groups into Burkinabè territory, due to the increase in power of the Malian Defense and Security Forces in the struggle against terrorism, thus the interest to develop synergies for countering the forces of evil.” One could read a lot into these phrases. There is a cozying-up to the Malian junta, obviously, especially in the context of severe Malian-French tensions and the Malian junta’s keenness (desperation?) to prove itself militarily capable amid the partial French withdrawal from Malian territory. Yet there is also obviously a note of concern from the Burkina Faso side – there is no shortage of jihadist activity in Burkina Faso already, but it seems the Burkinabè authorities are indeed anticipating that the escalating brutality and outright massacres conducted by Malian forces and Russian mercenaries may cause some blowback for Burkina Faso. Then, finally, I suspect part of the politics of the visit involves Burkinabè authorities preparing for a future scenario where they, too, might be under full sanctions from ECOWAS, including the closure of land borders with all of their neighbors except, of course, Mali.
In another official readout, the Burkinabè delegation emphasized two other policy points. First is the idea that the transition back to civilian rule must go in the following order: “security – return of the displaced – elections.” That’s a message to ECOWAS, obviously. The second is the idea, highlighted by Damiba recently as well, that Burkina Faso’s security policy now rests on two main planks – counter-jihadist operations and a dialogue-based off-ramp. Here is the latest piece of reporting on the dialogue front by The New Humanitarian, which has been following that issue closely.
*This is the transitional legislative body in Mali.